Romans 9 & Free Will

And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”Â  What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. Romans 9:10-18

Doesn’t this one Scripture prove predestination? After all, if God hated Esau before he was born, and God loved Isaac before he was born, doesn’t this mean God has already decided whether each of us will be saved or not, whether He loves us or hates us, before we are born?

There are two problems with this reasoning. The first, and the simplest, is that to get to the result that God predestines without regard to the desires of the person involved, you must assume that people will always accept the offer of God, and hence that men cannot choose. In other words, you must assume what you are trying to prove to get Romans 9 to read the way you want it to. Remove the circular logic, and the loss of free will argument falls apart.

“How do you know men are predestined?”
“Because they cannot reject the offer of God.”
“How do you know men cannot reject the offer of God?”
“Because they are predestined.”

The second problem is the assumption that because God chose before they were born (let’s not get into the problem of what “from the womb means,” here, though it’s a powerful argument in its own right), He must have chosen before He knew what they would do. That God is, in effect, bringing an a priori decision to Jacob and Esau. The problem is that’s not what Paul says, and it doesn’t fit into the character of God.

What Paul says is that God chose before they had done anything, whether good or evil. Since salvation is by grace alone, and not through works, this is a human viewpoint problem we’re dealing with, not a God viewpoint problem. In other word, God doesn’t judge us based on our works, so why should it surprise us that He knows the ultimate state of our soul before we even get to the stage of doing works? One of the attributes of God is omniscience. So there’s no such thing as an a priori fallacy in the case of God. He knows all there is to know, so you can’t accuse Him of taking an action before He knows something.

In the end, all the supports for predestination, in the strict sense of removing free will from humans, fall. Not a single one of them stand without counter, and without explanation. God does predestine, but it’s within His foreknowledge, not outside it. God does honor our free will choices within the limits He has set—but more on that in another post.

Note: There is an earlier version of this post where I think I went over the line a little, and argued in a way that leads to a conclusion I don’t think was correct in its final outcome. On reading the post this morning, I realized the problem, and changed it to more accurately reflect my views on predestination and free will.

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